It was an awkward moment for the diplomat. The Bangladeshi importer had driven the truck to the Bhutanese Embassy gate and questioned them about the quality of the packaging. The complaint was that the goods, orange, in this case, were not packed properly. The thin leftover wood from sawmills used to pack oranges was not strong enough to hold the goods being exported from Bhutan to Bangladesh.

Cheap leftover wood from across the border in Phuentsholing was used to make boxes for exporting oranges in winter and apples in summer. Forest-rich Bhutan didn’t have any idea to improve the quality of packaging.

That was then. It seems that it has not improved.

The government is now planning to produce 400,000 boxes from different sawmills to meet the requirements of exporters. The details are sketchy, but we can surmise that one criterion to improve exports is the quality of packaging. Gone are the days when exporters and importers cut down costs on packaging. In the export and import business, packaging is a priority.

Besides hydroelectricity and some minerals, both in value-added and raw forms, cash crops are one of the main export items. Bhutanese apples and oranges are sought after in neighbouring countries. This is evident from the fact that officials in Dhaka, Bangladesh, silently take pride in serving oranges and apples imported from Bhutan to visiting Bhutanese delegates.

That, too, according to statistics, will change. The production of the two most sought-after fruits from Bhutan – apples and oranges – is in steep decline. To put it into context, about 2,223 metric tonnes of apples were harvested in 2022. This was 101 MT less than in 2021. There is a growing domestic demand affecting exports. But the main factor is the declining area under cultivation.

The concrete jungles we see today in Thimphu and Paro were apple orchards not long ago. The government encouraged and invested in horticulture. Apples in the north and oranges in the south became the main export items and sources of cash income for farmers. The so-called development and modernisation affected them. Orchards were sold or turned into residential or commercial areas. There aren’t many apple orchards left in Thimphu after the government spent millions encouraging farmers to export apples.

In the south, it is a different problem. Our agriculturists could not find a solution to the diseases that wiped out orange orchards. Tired, farmers gave up investing and resorted to selling land or trying new crops. We have sent experts abroad, including to our favourite Australia, to look for a solution. There is none, judging by the declining orchard acreage.

Oranges, or citrus mandarins, are one of the country’s largest fresh fruit exports to India and Bangladesh, contributing to the economy through export revenue.

Although the agriculture ministry provided necessary support to orange growers, the production is on a decline. It is attributed to climate change impacts, increased pest and disease outbreaks, drought and erratic rainfall, and limited knowledge of farm management. Production relied largely on the nature rather than intervention from experts or the government

Bhutan is still known, among many, as an agrarian society relying on the export of basic agricultural products. Here too, it seems from our data and records, we have failed.

There are some positives to look forward to. Some of our products – genuine and professionally packaged – are lauded in the international market. There is scope if we can invest in production, packaging, and marketing.

“Himalaya” is synonymous with freshness, cleanliness, and quality. We could even sell Zoethe (smelly cheese) under the Himalaya brand if we can stick to quality.